As COVID-19 cases surged to unprecedented levels at the 5Cs throughout April, Claremont McKenna College and Harvey Mudd College quickly found themselves in a complicated position: they didn’t have enough isolation space for everyone who tested positive.
The isolation housing shortage and the growing number of cases led the two schools to begin asking some COVID-19 positive students to isolate in place, meaning they would have to share bathrooms, hallways and sometimes even dorm rooms with students who weren’t positive.
Of 62 active cases at Mudd during the weeks of April 4 and April 11, 40 students were asked to quarantine in their dorms, according to Dean of Students Marco Antonio Valenzuela. This week, only 10 were left isolating in place, he added.
Harvey Mudd had previously run out of isolation space in late February, when 19 students tested positive in one week, the highest up to that point. Valenzuela said that Mudd worked with Pitzer College prior to the latest surge to supplement isolation spaces, but was unable to utilize these spaces when Pitzer’s cases surged in April as well.
CMC did not respond to a request for comment on the number of students isolating in their residence halls, but the college had a significantly higher number of COVID cases than Mudd, accumulating 180 cases between the weeks of April 4 and April 11.
Ian Baime CM ’24 tested positive April 6, but said he was not told of his result until two days later due to a backlog at Hamilton Health Box, the service that coordinates CMC’s testing. He was informed via phone call by Dean of Students Dianna Graves CM ’98 that he was required to quarantine in his single at Berger Hall.
Like other quarantined CMC students, Baime said he was given a Grubhub gift card of $100 to spend on his first day of meals. For the remainder of his days in isolation, all his meals for the day were left at his door every morning and he would heat them up as the day went by in his CMC-issued microwave.
Baime’s room did not have its own bathroom, so he had to use a communal bathroom that was shared by everyone living in that hallway. According to Baime, quarantined students were asked to use the showers at specific times to minimize their interactions with non-infected students, something which he thought could have been avoided by designating one bathroom in the hall specifically for those who were COVID-19 positive.
“We were told to shower at weird times,” Baime said. “So I was showering at 4 p.m., [which] was a little weird. I suggested an idea of a COVID bathroom. My dorm has two bathrooms per floor and we had enough people where I was like, ‘Okay, we could just block one of these off for COVID.’ But that never happened.”
Unlike Baime’s residence hall, Harvey Mudd segregated bathrooms for those who were positive and those who were not, something James Nicholson HM ’24 experienced when he was required to quarantine in his Case Hall double.
Contact between positive and uninfected students was not entirely avoidable for many of the students isolating in place. At both Mudd and CMC, some COVID-19 positive students had to isolate in place with roommates, even if the roommate had tested negative.
Roommates were required to follow close contact procedures, but were allowed to go about normal activities so long as they remained negative. At HMC, COVID-19 negative roommates were also required to wear their masks in their room as long as their roommate was in isolation and were required to test daily, according to Valenzuela.
Some residents chose to avoid this situation altogether, like Nicholson’s roommate, who left to stay with family nearby to avoid potentially contracting COVID-19. This was a scenario which Nicholson had already seen take place with some of his friends.
“One of my friends got COVID,” Nicholson said. “And then […] his roommate, they’re living in the same room, so [they] also contracted COVID.”
Although isolation spaces became available for Nicholson to move into later on, he said that after a discussion with administrators he was permitted to stay in his dorm since his roommate had gone home temporarily.
Nicholson was worried he had a false positive after testing positive one day but, before receiving his result, got another PCR test which came back negative. After hearing that other Harvey Mudd students tested positive one day and negative the next as well, Nicholson said he wished SHS and the administration would take the possibility of false positives more seriously.
“[False positives] might be impacting the health of our community,” Nicholson said. “Mudd recently ran out of isolation space and if there were some people with false positives, taking up some of that isolation space, that means that other people with true positives have had to stay in their rooms and possibly spread it to their roommates.”
Some students who believed they may have received false positives were also worried about potentially contracting the virus, if they were required to isolate themselves with COVID-19 positive students.
The backlog due to a high number of tests last week meant Devon Tao HM ’25 didn’t get their COVID-19 test results from April 11 until the evening of April 12. And like Nicholson, they had two conflicting results: positive on Monday, negative on Tuesday.
After telling multiple deans and SHS about their conflicting tests, Tao was told they still had to isolate. They were moved to an isolation room shared with another person who had tested positive. This new living situation made Tao worry that they would potentially contract COVID-19 from their roommate if they were falsely positive, something which adversely affected their mental health.
“I could not focus on my schoolwork because I had major health anxiety,” Tao said. “And that was really hard for me. I think it was probably the second most stressed I’ve been in my entire life […] and I kind of still feel the impacts of that.”
“Being in quarantine because I had COVID was harder than having COVID.”
After quarantining with a positive roommate for two days, high stress levels led Tao to isolate off campus in a hotel room instead, where they had to pay for their stay and meals on their own.
Dealing with the stress of isolating in place, potential false positives and delays in results took a toll on some students’ mental health.
“Being in quarantine because I had COVID was harder than having COVID,” Baime said. “I was quarantined for eight days. The first four I was sick and the last four were way harder because I felt normal and was just in my single for 24 hours a day. So it was super claustrophobic.”
However, Baime felt supported by CMC’s administration and said he appreciated how Graves texted him throughout his isolation period to check up on him. Baime said the school was doing the best they could given the current circumstances.
“Overall, I mean it was not what I would have wanted to do,” Baime said. “But there were no other options. Like, I can’t think of a better solution. I can’t think of something else that should have happened. It was just kind of what happens when you have 11 percent of your school with COVID and a spike that is not being seen in the general population.”
Nicholson also felt supported by Mudd’s administration and faculty while in isolation.
“My professors are very understanding,” Nicholson said. “For my physics lab class, they shipped me a kit that I can use to do physics lab in my room. And the food is delivered. […] I think they’ve been good about taking care of me while I’m in isolation.”
Valenzuela said that Mudd checks on isolated students’ mental health and other needs every day.
“The on-call dean checks in on the students daily and we provide resources for students in isolation on how to stay connected while in isolation,” Valenzuela said via email.
But, to Tao, this sort of check up did not feel like enough and they said they wished Mudd’s administration would have done more.
“I think it’s really inconsiderate of people to not do everything they can to keep the community safe.”
“I just felt like they didn’t care at all about how I was doing,” Tao said. “They only messaged me for logistic reasons.”
Coming out of isolation, Tao hopes that this last spike in cases will encourage students to adhere to COVID-19 guidelines in the future, mindful of keeping community members safe.
“If someone can do everything right and still get it then you should not be going to these parties without masks,” Tao said. “Sometimes I see people inside without masks [and] it’s really frustrating. Especially because there are people in our community who are immunocompromised, or have some risk factor. And I think it’s really inconsiderate of people to not do everything they can to keep the community safe.”